Democracy In Bangladesh: The Silence Is Deafening 

IFES; Women Against Violence in Elections in Bangladesh

by Sabria Chowdhury Balland 4 March 2019

The price of apathy is to be ruled by evil men. —Plato

The aforementioned quote was chosen for this piece as it reversely relates to the current socio-political climate in Bangladesh, where the apathy of the general public  towards the political future of the country did not give rise to the rule of evil men (or women, as may be the case). Rather, it is the rule of the evil men and women which gave rise to the public’s apathy.

The 11th. Parliamentary “election” held on 30 December, 2018 was the repudiation of everything democratic. To begin with, the farce did not even begin on 30 December when polls opened. It began on the night of the 29 of December, with the stuffing of ballot boxes. The Awami League, its supporters and its goons made absolutely sure that none of the opposition candidates (the few who were not imprisoned or ineligible based on false charges, of course) even had a chance to campaign, let alone come close to winning.

The Awami League has proven that it has its tentacles in all sectors of governance, law enforcement, the judiciary, the media, entertainment, sports, commerce, industry and education. Its ubiquitous presence in every factor of Bangladeshi society was demonstrated in the election result: a victory with 96% of the votes, when the majority of the country was not even able to, or rather, allowed to vote.

The shenanigans of the Awami League have been well exposed and documented now and are the object of very substantial discontentment within the international community. The US Senate and Congress, the EU, Canada and even the Pentagon have expressed grave concerns about the degradation of the democratic process in Bangladesh.

While the reaction of the international community is perfectly understandable, that of the Bangladeshi people, the ones most negatively impacted by an authoritarian, one-party state, is less comprehensible.

This is a people who have risked their lives as the underdogs for their sovereignty and language leading to the Liberation War of 1971. Every change of government gave rise to issues for which people have been ready to debate, protest, demonstrate and if need be, even lay down their lives.

The last time the world has witnessed such an occurrence in Bangladesh was the student protests in 2018, just a few months before the election. Needless to say, in full dictatorial manner, these protests were squashed. As grave as the crackdown was, this was, after all, one issue that gave rise to the discontentment of the public, particularly students.

Based on the history of the country and the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Awami League and its cronies during the election, a monumental outpour of protestors was expected in the days following the election. It seemed obvious that there was no way 100 million voters were going to accept a massive deception of such proportions.

Shockingly, there was pin drop silence. The various times when the US government, the EU, the Pentagon and President Donald Trump expressed their heightened concerns about the autocratic turn the country was taking were perfect windows of opportunities for protests within Bangladesh, for dialogue, for expression of discontentment, for refusal of election results which were based on criminal acts. But, no. There was complete silence. It was “business as usual” from the next day after the election.

We just witnessed another election on February 28, 2019 the mayoral election for Dhaka. Complete silence, once again. The polling stations were completely empty and quite humorous photos began to circulate on social media and the newspapers of election officers and polling agents taking naps. The problem here is that there is nothing humorous about this at all.

What was demonstrated in this last election were:

-Apathy for a government and an electoral process which the electorate knows for a fact will do exactly as it pleases, throwing any and all democratic principles out the window. The old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” could not be more appropriate.

-Distrust of the government. No one will risk going out to vote with the risk of being beaten, arrested or worse in an election in which the ruling party will win anyway.

-Aversion to a government which has sponsored beatings, arrests, tortures, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, rapes, etc.

Whether the silence of the Bangladeshi people in the face of the most corrupt and dictatorial state is one or a combination of these factors is yet to be known. However, what is clear is that Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have successfully demolished every fiber of a democratic system.

Having said that, an oppressed people do not, cannot remain oppressed for an infinite amount of time. The silence in Bangladesh is not one of approval. It is one of the calm before the storm.